By John Rountree, University of Houston-Downtown, USA 

Societies marked by deep divisions present challenging contexts for deliberation. Such societies may have entrenched interests, power inequities, and a history of ill-will and misconceptions that foster undesirable conditions for deliberation, yet deliberation also potentially transforms intergroup conflict and promotes reconciliation, mutual respect, and cooperation. This thematic collection highlights the contributions of scholars in the Journal of Deliberative Democracy from the last several years on the role of deliberation amid deep conflict. 

One important function of deliberation in deep conflict is cultivating recognition and understanding of “others,” or people within the political system who are viewed as foreign or threatening to one’s own group. Bora Kanra (2012) argues for “binary deliberation” with divided groups that separates the deliberative phases of social learning from those of decision-making. Kanra uses two case studies from Turkey to illustrate how the social learning phase of deliberation could enhance participants’ understanding of difference across group divides. Rachel Wahl (2021) similarly contends that deliberation helps people recognize the legitimacy of political others as morally reasoning agents within the democratic system. In deliberative dialogues with American students after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Wahl examines how students worked to understand the “moral sources” by which those with different ideological beliefs formed their political identities. Anna Wiederhold Wolfe (2018) also frames deliberation as a way to transform views of others. Wolfe argues that deliberative democracy is itself a form of activist resistance against authoritarianism that remedies misconceptions, disconnection, and reified identity boundaries that exist between groups and fuel authoritarian politics. For Wolfe, the goal is not consensus but to transform rigidified conflict among enemies into fluid, agonistic politics among opponents. 

Deliberation could also promote peace, stability, and integration in deeply divided societies. An influential conception of democracy amid intergroup conflicts is consociational theory, which suggests that the right institutional power-sharing arrangements and cultural accommodations can create stability in divided societies (Lijphart, 1969). Drawing on qualitative illustrations of citizen deliberation from Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Brazil, Jürg Steiner and Maria Clara Jaramillo (2019) argue that deliberative democracy complements consociational theory by offering a mechanism for societies with deep conflicts to cultivate a culture of accommodation. In a short response commentary, Arend Lijphart (2019) concurs that deliberation is a useful complement to consociational theory but also argues that more emphasis needs to be put on deliberation among elite actors and that deliberative democracy should not be framed as in direct conflict with rational choice theory. In similar line of inquiry, Charlotte Löb and Hartmut Wessler (2021) argue that mass media provide another potential deliberative venue for social integration in divided societies, as they can provide a site for conflict communication that simultaneously highlights internal divisions within a society but reifies shared political processes and spaces. They develop normative criteria for evaluating the media’s integrative functions: inclusion of diverse voices, responsiveness of participants to each other’s claims, cultivation of civility and mutual respect, and promotion of group bridging identities. 

Deliberative democracy always needs to be adapted to local contexts, and this is especially salient in societies with a history of deep internal divisions. Magdalena Dembinska and Françoise Montambeault (2015) offer a framework for analyzing the full process of deliberation with its pre-deliberative conditions and post-deliberative diffusion. For pre-deliberative conditions, they propose examining what incentives, interests, pre-deliberation discussions, and message frames bring divided groups to the deliberation table in the first place, especially as an alternative to negotiation. During deliberation, analysis focuses on how transformative moments occur through discussion. For post-deliberative diffusion, they suggest analyzing how the results of the deliberation for participants are taken to the societal level to impact the group conflict. Deliberative practices should also be rooted in the cultural and religious traditions of local contexts. Nicolas Pirsoul (2017) argues that the Jafari Islamic school of thought provides a useful conceptual tool for deliberation in divided Islamic societies without imposing Western conceptions of deliberative democracy. As a branch of Shia theology, the Jafari tradition offers a strong foundation for deliberative practices that can promote argumentation and mutual respect in a pluralistic democracy. 

The hypothesized benefits of deliberation amid deep conflict need to be complemented by systematic empirical investigation. Rousiley C.M. Maia et al. (2017) analyze deliberations between slum residents and police officers in Brazil marked by fear, distrust, and power asymmetry. The authors reveal that different forms of expressions of authority, such as those based on functional position or life experience, can detract or enhance the deliberativeness of interactions among participants. Marcia D. Mundt (2019) presents a cautionary tale of using deliberation in societies marked by deep conflict. She analyzes the application of participatory deliberative democracy in the postconflict peacebuilding efforts of El Salvador. Using survey data from the Latin America Public Opinion Project, Mundt shows that participation in democratic deliberation was associated with increased trust in government; however, it was also associated with increased personal experience of violence and decreased satisfaction with one’s community. Mundt notes that this cross-sectional data is only suggestive but also cautions that our assumptions about deliberation’s impacts in these contexts need to be verified by empirical research. 

Overall, the essays in this collection spotlight the functions, practices, and limitations of democratic deliberation amid deep conflict. This scholarship is far from exhaustive and presents a critical avenue for future deliberation research. 


Lijphart, A. (1969). Consociational democracy. World Politics, 21(2), 207-225.


Research Article

Authority and Deliberative Moments: Assessing Equality and Inequality in Deeply Divided Groups
Authority and Deliberative Moments: Assessing Equality and Inequality in Deeply Divided Groups

Rousiley C. M. Maia, Danila Cal, Janine K. R. Bargas, Vanessa V. Oliveira, Patrícia G. C. Rossini and Rafael C. Sampaio

2017-11-06 Volume 13 • Issue 2 • 2017 • 7

Also a part of:

Thematic Issue: Deliberation Amid Deep Conflict


Reflections from the Field

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